Wednesday, 2 November 2011
China has launched the unmanned 神舟八号Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, marking the start of another key mission in the nation's quest to assemble a permanent space station within a decade.
Shenzhou-8 blasted off on board a Long March-2F carrier rocket early on 1 November 2011 from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in north-western China's Gansu Province.
It was scheduled to dock with the 天宫一号 Tiangong-1 Space capsule within two days of the launch and stay linked for 12 days. 神舟八号Shenzhou-8 is then scheduled to perform a second rendez-vous and docking manoeuvre before it detaches to allow the re-entry module to return to Earth on November 17.
Astronauts are scheduled to visit 天宫一号 Tiangong-1 twice next year on the 神舟九号Shenzhou-9 and 神舟十号Shenzhou-10 spacecraft, which are designed to link with 天宫一号 Tiangong-1 to form a mini-space station.
The 神舟八号Shenzhou-8 is carrying an experimental facility developed by German and Chinese scientists. According to the German space agency DLR, plants, bacteria and human cancer cells will be exposed to zero gravity and space radiation for nearly three weeks as scientists seek to explore questions such as how gravity affects biological processes and how the immune system could be strengthened.
In one experiment, Chinese and German researchers are jointly studying a miniature ecosystem with algae and fish. They hope to develop a biological life-support system to produce oxygen and food and to treat water for longer space missions. In another, scientists will investigate the crystallisation of medically relevant proteins in space. They are interested in the development of new substances to target the MRSA "superbug" and the parasites that cause malaria.
In 2003, China became the third nation to launch an astronaut into space after Russia and the US.